The tree of love and death: Cape Rēinga to Twilight Beach (Te Araroa tramp, day 1; kms 0-12)

I got talking to a couple of Brazilians, who had recognised my Fluminense football/tramping shirt. “Ufff, que lugar,” one of them said: “Wow, what a place.”

It really is.

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Cape Rēinga is a lot more than a much-photographed lighthouse.

This is Te Rerenga Wairua – the original name of Cape Rēinga. The name refers to the place where the spirits of the dead depart for the next world, in Māori cosmology.

I liked the brief, thoughtful information panels outlining various layers of meaning this “what a place” held for Māori.

One was about how the Tasman Sea and Pacific Ocean famously meet just off the Cape, in a long, seething line, a dramatic sight, like two flat avalanches colliding in slow motion.

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This pic doesn’t do the meeting of the Tasman and Pacific even a skerrick of justice.

The panel described this tremendous blending of sea and ocean as symbolic of what can happen between lovers – a beautiful, but explosive encounter of equal forces, each asserting themselves fully, yet also being changed utterly by the other.

I sat a long time watching the diagonal lines of swell continuing on their contrary ways after that encounter, implacable.

(That’s the kind of dilatory thing that ends up making me tramp by moonlight).

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This one captures it a bit better – the two contrary, massive currents sweeping in; their clash like a smashed road out to the horizon.

The Tasman swells somehow recomposed themselves after all the noisy splattering, and kept moving stolidly north-east.

The Pacific swells pulled themselves together too, and emerged from the swirling fracas to keep rolling purposefully south-west.

I liked another panel describing the origins of the name of nearby Spirits Bay (Kapowairua). When an ancestor was about to die, he told his loved ones that his spirit would soon pass them, heading for Cape Rēinga, where all the spirits of the dead depart this world.

When that happened, he instructed, they must do one, final, crucial thing for him:

“Catch my spirit!”

I liked the one about the ancient pōhutukawa tree, or kahika to the locals. Wizened with uncountable years, it hovers between life and death on the very edge of the rocky point below the lighthouse; it’s from this rocky point where the spirits of the dead are said to step off this world.

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The ancient pōhutukawa that is said to provide a ladder from life to death is the small green speck to the right of the bare outcrop.

Their very last steps are down its gnarled roots, which grip the permanently wet, shadowed rock just above the water line.

The tree’s name, the panel said, is Te Aroha: Love – the ultimate frontier.

But it has never been known to flower – as if such sombre duties preclude ever showing off such an intense, joyful scarlet.

From just above the lighthouse I got my first view of Te Araroa – the track drops down off the Cape and onto a small beach to the south. From there, it’s another 3000 kilometres to Bluff in the southernmost tip of the South Island.

The first camp is at Twilight Beach, 12 kilometres south of the Cape.

It was harder than that distance sounds because the trail notes said the Twilight Beach DOC campsite might run short of water in midsummer, so on top of four days’ food and all my normal gear, I was carrying a two days and a night’s water – nine litres.

This boosted my pack weight well over 15 kilos, a lot for a hot hike over scrubby headlands and through soft sand.

But I got there, and there was plenty of rainwater in the campsite’s tank. And an idyll awaited: another tramper, curled up asleep in a mosquito-mesh tent, pitched so its door commanded a stupendous sea view.

Her tent looked a delicious place filled with soft sunlight, afternoon breezes and peaceful rest.

Later, over a whiskey, we chatted. She said working as a ranger on Norfolk Island was rewarding, scenic, but a bit lonely. “It’s lovely… but just so small.”

As the sun went down I sat back with a book, a liquorice tea and all that twilight: great curtains of sea mist hanging above endless combers, shot with gold.

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Twilight Beach, taken from my first campsite on Te Araroa: a piece of Department of Conservation paradise about 12 kms south of Cape Reinga.

In the morning she headed north toward Spirits Bay, and I carried on south, toward 90 Mile Beach and, eventually, the rest of Aotearoa.

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Sometimes, the trail emerges on the landscape, like a visible companion.

I wouldn’t meet another tramper, going either way, for nearly five more days on the trail.

I wouldn’t mind.

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